Just over two weeks have passed since the apparent loss of the top-secret Zuma mission. Since then, SpaceX has publicly and privately stated that its Falcon 9 rocket has performed nominally in flight — with both the first and second stages firing as expected.
Now the US Air Force appears to be backing the missile company. “Based on the available data, our team has not identified any information that would alter SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status,” Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told Bloomberg News. This qualified conclusion came after a preliminary review of data from Zuma’s launch. That’s according to Thompson, who said the Air Force will continue to review data from all launches.
As tentative as it may be, this statement supports SpaceX’s efforts to say the mission was a success from its perspective. The statement also adds to the concerns of Northrop Grumman, who built the Zuma payload and the adapter that connected it to the Falcon 9 rocket. Northrop Grumman was also responsible for separating after the second stage of the Zuma rocket reached space. The aerospace veteran has not publicly commented on the details of the Zuma mission since its launch.
No one has officially confirmed this, but sources have told Ars that the Zuma payload never successfully separated from the rocket after launch. Instead, it remained partially or completely attached to the second stage and returned to Earth’s atmosphere after 1.5 revolutions.
After the Zuma accident, critics of SpaceX have seized the opportunity to question the reliability of the rocket company, even as it has introduced serious competition to the US and global launch industries. However, this statement from the Air Force — which would have access to definitive data on the Zuma accident — will likely go a long way in answering questions about SpaceX’s reliability.